Canada lynx have a unique appearance among felids, especially Nearctic ones. They have a flared facial ruff, black ear tufts, and long hind legs, which give them a slightly stooped posture. Their tails are short and black-tipped. Their coats range from reddish-brown to gray. Each hair has a white tip that gives Canada lynxes a frosted appearance. Their large, spreading feet act like snowshoes and support twice the weight on snow bobcat paws do. Adult males, who weigh between 22 and 31 pounds (10 and 14 kilograms), are larger than females, who weigh between 18 and 24 pounds (8 and 11 kilograms).
Lynxes of both subspecies look remarkably similar. The Canada lynx, however, is only half the size of the Eurasian lynx and uses completely different hunting techniques, which supports mitochondrial analysis that they are separate species. The Canada lynx probably descended from an ancestor of the Eurasian lynx ancestor that migrated into North America during one of the last two major glacial periods. However, the much larger Eurasian lynx preys mainly on ungulates (roe deer) while the Canada lynx relies almost exclusively on snowshoe hares and is uniquely adapted, both behaviorally and physiologically, to exploit this cyclic nature of hare populations.
Lynx live throughout the broad boreal, sub-boreal, and western montane forests of North America and range into the American Rocky Mountains and Cascades of the Pacific Northwest, northern Minnesota, and northern New England. Most of their historical range is intact although it has shrunk in the south due primarily to human settlement, fire suppression and forest maturation, harvest and forest clearance. Extra-limital records have documented lynx in the northern tundra, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. See range map
Lynx rely on the snowshoe hare as its main source of food source, and so they usually live in higher densities in riparian areas and areas of new-growth coniferous forest where snowshoe hares are common. Canada lynx can also live in mature forest stands and agricultural areas with enough woodlands that contain hares. Bobcats, more generalist feeders, are expanding their range northward in some areas although there appears to be a very distinct partitioning of niches between these two felids due to snow depth.
Canada lynx eat snowshoe hares almost exclusively. Recruitment of lynx populations is near zero and adult mortality is much higher at the bottom of hare cycles.
Because they are linked to the population cycles of snowshoe hares, Canada lynx may be induced ovulators (that is, females ovulate only after copulation) when prey density is low, and spontaneous ovulators when prey density is high. This system improves the prospects for breeding and raising young. After a gestation of 60 to 65 days, a litter of three to five cubs is born. When prey is scarce, very few lynx give birth, and of those that do, very few of the young survive to a healthy adulthood. Juveniles mature at ten months when prey is abundant, but at two years when prey is scarce. Survival rates vary dramatically with the hare cycle, but more than 90 percent survive before and during a decline in hares. However, in the first and second years after a hare population crash, survival rates can be as low as nine to 40 percent of the adult population. In captivity, lynx can live at least 15 years.
Home ranges for lynxes vary from 1.5 to 9.6 square miles (4 to 25 square kilometers) for females to 1.5 to 27 square miles (4 to 70 square kilometers) for males. Male ranges usually encompass those of females but researchers have observed some same-sex overlap. It is thought the same-sex overlap may be the result of parents being tolerant of grown offspring, another unusual adaptation to a predictably cyclic prey base.
In general, the future of the lynx looks more promising than that of many other felids. Problems persist however, as harvests during the cyclic low period have progressively fallen since the mid-1970s and have not recovered. At the low point of hare cycles, lynx become more vulnerable to trapping as they travel greater distances in search of food. Some biologists recommend the suspension of trapping quotas during low hare years, as well as a quota system for lynx as their numbers increase. Except in the lower 48 states, habitat alteration may have had only limited impact on lynx populations. In the southern portions of their range, optimal hare habitat is very patchy logging practices may further exacerbate the problem.
In 2008, the IUCN listed Canada lynx as “Least Concern” on their Red List. They are however, protected in international trade on CITES Appendix II. In April, 2000, the U.S. Endangered Species Act listed Canada lynx as “Threatened.” This threatened status covers wild populations of the lower 48 states and all animals held in captivity within the United States. In Canada and Alaska, trapping is regulated through closed seasons, quotas, limited entry, and long-term trapping concessions. These regulations cover both the nominate form, L. c. canadensis, which is by far the most widely distributed subspecies, as well as the subspecies indigenous to the island of Newfoundland, L. c. subsolanus.
The North American captive population is managed by a Regional Studbook that has a target population of 80 animals managed by a Population Management Plan (PMP). As part of the Regional Collection Plan, the TAG recommends that all taxa of Eurasian lynx as well as bobcats be eliminated from AZA institutions.